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Mr. Bercow: My hon. Friend is right to emphasise that the system should be structured to meet the needs of the individual child, rather than expecting the child to be structured to meet the needs of the system. In that context, would my hon. Friend consider visiting the admirable MacIntyre school in my constituency, headed by Helen

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Willdridge, which caters magnificently for the interests of children with severe disabilities? It does a wonderful job, but it gets very little praise; it could do with some support.

Mrs. May: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention, and for rightly pointing out the excellent work done by the school in his constituency. I am happy to visit the school and see the work of the teachers there, and look forward to his further invitation to do so. I am happy to visit schools across the country to see the excellent work carried out in both mainstream and special schools. I make no apology to the Secretary of State--who made one or two comments about the fact that I had visited a school in the constituency of his hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Kali Mountford)--for going into schools and listening to parents and teachers about what they consider to be the issues that we politicians should address.

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury): I thank my hon. Friend for coming to the Jubilee Room just before the debate started, to listen to the concerns of pupils, teachers and parents from Alderman Knight school in Gloucestershire, who feel that their school is under threat because of the Government's actions. Does she regret, as I do, that not a single Labour Front Bencher was able to call in, even for five minutes?

Mrs. May: Indeed. Those parents, teachers and children were speaking from their hearts and expressing their feelings about the proposed closure of the Alderman Knight school and other special schools in Gloucestershire. Later in my remarks, I shall deal with the threat that hangs over so many special schools.

Mr. Andrew George (St. Ives): I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. Among all the party political point scoring, is she concerned that as a result of the actions of the Conservative party we could end up losing the entire Bill? Is she concerned that the "needs of the child" condition has been used to deny children places in mainstream schools? That condition is already covered by protections in the Education Act 1996 and overarching legislation in the Children Act 1989. Disabilities charities are satisfied with the conditions set out in clause 1.

Mrs. May: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that non-party political intervention. I fully accept that the needs of the various parties in the equation must be balanced. That is why it is important that we do not ignore the best interests of the child by wiping out that condition. Our amendment seeks what Ministers in another place have accepted and what the Secretary of State has accepted in some of his comments. At the heart of the Bill should be the best interests of the child. It is sad that the Government will not write that into the Bill, as that would allow us to balance the competing needs.

I accept that achieving those best interests and balancing those needs is not always easy. There are occasions when parents are naturally protective of their children and fearful of their inclusion in mainstream schools, when that might be the right solution for a particular child.

There are also parents such as those whom I met at Thurlow Park school in Lambeth and the Lydgate special school in Colne Valley, and those whom I heard this

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afternoon from Alderman Knight school in Gloucestershire, whose children have tried mainstream schools and have found that while they might be physically included in the mainstream school, they have often been excluded from full participation in the school and from realising their full potential. The same children have blossomed in the special school environment.

It is only common sense, and fair and just, to include the best interests of the child, alongside those of other children in the school and of parents. The latter two groups are already identified in the Bill.

Dr. Ladyman: Does not the hon. Lady fear that adding a further caveat to the Bill will be used by some local authorities as an opportunity to override the primacy of the wishes of parents, by saying that they know better what should happen to a child?

Mrs. May: No. The three parties would be identified, and the need to balance their interests would be written into the Bill. The alternative is the circumstances currently facing parents such as those whom I have mentioned, who want their children to be in special schools and believe that their decision is in their children's best interests, but are forced by a local authority that has an inclusion agenda to opt for a mainstream school.

Dr. Ladyman: Surely, without the caveat, the Bill ensures the primacy of the parents' wishes in respect not only of mainstream places but of special school places.

Mrs. May: As I said in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson), I intend to speak in more detail about special schools. Sadly, the primacy of the interests of special schools is not being maintained. The Bill does not allow it to continue or to be enhanced. We must ensure that children's best interests can be taken into consideration and that their needs are balanced. I accept that that balance can often be difficult to achieve, but if it is not clearly stated that the best interests of the child lie at the heart of the Bill, many children will be unable to develop their full potential. Children will be placed in mainstream education against their interests and their parents' wishes.

Some of my further points on the specifics of the Bill have also been made by colleagues in another place. My hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) spoke about the Bill's implications for education in independent special schools. Clause 1 expressly excludes local authorities from paying for places in independent special schools. We have expressed concerns in another place about preventing local authorities from funding such places and from taking into consideration the correct provision for a child and his or her best interests. [Interruption.] The Secretary of State says that he does not believe that that is the case, but clause 1 states that the cost of a place at an independent special school cannot be met by local education authorities.

I understand that Ministers gave assurances in another place that the ability to fund places in independent special schools is protected in legislation. The School Standards and Framework Act 1998 contains provision enabling local authorities to buy places in independent schools, but that required regulations that the Government have been singularly slow to introduce. I assume that the Bill

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revokes that provision anyway. The ability to pay for places in the independent sector is especially important in respect of children who require 24-hour residential places, which are often purchased from the independent sector. It is also important, however, with regard to specialist schools run by disabilities organisations, such as the royal school for deaf children in Margate, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet. If the Opposition are not convinced by the Government's reassurances that local authorities' ability to fund such places remains in place, we will seek to remove the relevant provision in clause 1, which states that proposed new section 316 in the Education Act 1996

There is, however, a wider threat to independent special schools. Constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) have drawn to my attention the problems that parents face in relation to the code of practice, which obliges local authorities to comply with the preference that is expressed by parents for a particular maintained special school. However, the code contains no duty to comply with parents' representations--there can be only representations, and not preferences--regarding independent special schools.

A further problem exists in relation to the information that local authorities provide to parents. Authorities are required to provide information on maintained special schools so that parents can express a preference, but they are not required to provide information on schools that are in the independent sector or that are provided by voluntary, charity or disabilities organisations. Many such excellent schools currently exist, including the royal school for deaf children in Margate, and we do not want the Bill to remove the ability to give children places in them.

Mr. Blunkett: We do not want to set any hares running and mislead people outside the House into believing that a measure is being withdrawn when that is explicitly not the case. That is especially important as it relates to what is currently available to parents. The implications of the hon. Lady's comments--the provisions to which she referred do not give necessarily give the same impression--are completely incorrect. We are not withdrawing any current right for a parent to have a place paid for in an appropriate school, whether it is independent or not. That right will apply if such a place is appropriate and the matter is discussed and agreed as part of the process that has been set out this afternoon.

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